By B. Raman
With the next elections to Pakistan’s National Assembly due in the beginning of 2013, Pakistani politics has started picking up momentum and sliding into the contentious and venomous mode.
In their attempt to mobilise party faithfuls and gather fresh pockets of support, Pakistani political leaders have been exploiting three main issues: the alleged corruption and incompetence of President Asif Ali Zardari, the alleged unreliability and opportunism of Nawaz Sharif, the leader of the Pakistan Muslim League (N), and the anti-US anger.
While Nawaz’s PML has made Zardari’s sins of commission and omission the target of its anger, Imran Khan and his Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) have been focussing for the present on the anti-US anger to rally support for their movement against the Government. The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) headed by the UK-based Altaf Hussain has come out in support of Zardari and against Nawaz. Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) has been carefully watching the campaign unfold without getting into a vigorous counter campaign. It is not worried by Imran Khan. Its main worry is Nawaz, but for the present it is content to let the MQM counter the PML (N) without the PPP itself getting into battle station.
On October 28, 2011, the PML (N) held a huge anti-Zardari rally in Lahore (about 40,000), while Imran Khan’s PTI held an anti-US rally in Islamabad. No estimate of the support attracted by the PTI’s rally is available. The PTI is holding an anti-Government rally in Lahore on October 30 and the MQM an anti-PML (N) rally in Karachi the same day.
The PPP has no reasons to be concerned for the present. Its support base in rural Sindh remains strong. Despite its differences with the MQM over its inept handling of the bad law and order situation in Karachi, it has reasons to be gratified over the continuing opposition of the MQM to Nawaz Sharif.
The PPP and the PML (N) have retained their major bases of support in Punjab—-with no evidence of any major attrition one way or the other. The anti-US anger is unlikely to be a major political issue either in Sindh or in Punjab.
The public fall-out of the anti-US anger is presently confined to the Pashtun belt in the Khyber-Pakhtoonkwa (KP) province and the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Imran Khan has been trying to exploit this anger by focussing his campaign on the inability of the Zardari Government to stop the US Drone (pilotless plane) strikes in the FATA. It remains to be seen what effect Imran’s campaign has on the support base of the Awami National Party (ANP), which continues to be an ally of the PPP despite its unhappiness over the anti-Pashtun attacks—allegedly by the MQM cadres—in Karachi. Balochistan does not count for much in the budding campaign.
The war of words between the Pakistan Army, the Foreign Office and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) on the one side and the US political and military leaders on the other over the ISI’s alleged collusion with the Haqqani network in Afghanistan has not excited much public interest despite the high decibel projection of the war of words in the Indian and Pakistani print and electronic media. The public anger over the May 2 US raid in Abbottabad, which led to the killing of Osama bin Laden, has subsided. OBL has already become passee and no tears are being shed over his death. Even the fundamentalist political parties such as the Jamat-e-Islami (JEI) and the Jamaat-ul-Ulema Islam (JUI) have not been able to create a street hysteria over the US raid.
The main issue angering the voters today is the deteriorating economic situation, which could get worse if the US threat to cut down—if not stop— its assistance to Pakistan is carried out. Even though the political and military leadership has been trying to project a couldn’t care less attitude over threats of US aid cut-off, they know that neither China nor Saudi Arabia could compensate for what Pakistan would lose should the US carry out its threat. With the next elections about 18 months away, it would not be in the interest of any of the mainstream parties for the economic situation to deteriorate further.
While the political drum-beats are to be expected, no clear-cut answers are available to two questions: Will the opposition try for a premature election in 2012 and what would be the attitude of the Army in the event of the contentious political debate getting more venomous?
The indications from reliable sources in Pakistan close to the Army are that the GHQ in Rawalpindi has no stomach for a direct political role similar to what it had pre-2008 and would prefer that the elections are held as scheduled. The Army’s present preoccupation is the war of words with the US.
According to these sources, both the military and political leaders in Pakistan are feeling uncomfortable with the continuing war of words and are searching for an honourable way out without seeming to betray the Haqqani network which has remained loyal to Islamabad and Rawalpindi.